This past Sunday we witnessed one of the best (and most controversial) F1 races in a very, very long time. It was the battle of the two ultimate drivers, but also of Red Bull Racing versus Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1. We spoke to Anthony Abbot, a South African F1 engineer living in the UK who has worked for both these teams.
Words: Wilhelm Lutjeharms
Six years at Red Bull Racing and six years at Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 racing - that is quite a CV, whichever way you look at it. The surname Abbot might ring a bell if you are interested in cars, or more specifically, Porsches. Anthony’s late father, John, was involved in all things Porsche in Johannesburg, and today his son Tim Abbot is known for servicing, maintaining, restoring and building classic Porsches. The love for cars has clearly branched out to the entire family.
“I’m proudly South African and studied at Wits. I completed a Ph.D. in engineering, more specifically fluid mechanics, following my degree in mechanical engineering. Fundamentally, it is the study of liquids and gasses.”
Anthony (follow him @abbotevolution on Instagram) said, jokingly, that he often refers to his studies as being for a glorified plumber but, I quickly learned that there is a lot going on in his head, most of which us average petrolheads would find very difficult to comprehend indeed.
“Academically I was more of a physicist than an engineer - doing the mathematical equation and matching that up with what is measured. I’ve always been fascinated by cars. I ended studying something quite basic, but it was hugely powerful and something that is at the heart of engineering.
I asked Anthony how he ended up in the F1 industry, and more specifically at Red Bull Racing.
“While doing my Ph.D. at Wits, there was a student who worked in my laboratory - a very bright lad who is currently working for Apple on their driverless car scheme. From South Africa he went to Cambridge to study engineering and ended up working for McLaren. In the early 2000s I also worked there for a short stint as a contractor. Then I was also doing some other software work in the UK for a sports betting business.
“The stint at McLaren got my foot in the door and I got to meet some interesting people like Paddy Lowe, ex-principal of Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 and ex-chief technical officer at Williams F1, and who is now developing green fuel. I then ended up back in South Africa doing some work in the banking sector, but that wasn’t for me, but that is where I was with my software life.
“In 2007 I got a call from this student, who had by then graduated with a Ph.D., and who had ended up at Red Bull. At that stage it was the most fun team on the grid but they weren’t doing much at all. I was pulled in right at the beginning as they acquired Adrian Newey from McLaren and when they were trying to push the team forward as a more professional outfit.
Photo by Douglas Abbot
“It was quite an interesting journey. I started in July 2007 and in 2010 we won the championship. It was an incredibly quick journey. There weren’t any substantial systems, good or bad, compared with Mercedes-Benz, which had a deep legacy. At Red Bull Racing the result was that it was quite easy and quick to improve things.
“At Red Bull Racing there was a very intentional and intellectual investment. For example, getting the right people in place such as an icon like Newey... he is a very interesting and enigmatic guy. Some would say he is an idiot, some would say he is a genius. He certainly sets a direction and he gathered the right people around him.
“I was involved in the mathematical simulation of the vehicle, more specifically the vehicle dynamics, meaning how the chassis works. It was about two years of work to design a centralised system that would model the car on the computer, used when the race engineers tried to set the car up for the simulators or a dyno. And this was designed from scratch by some top guys in the field.
“We architected something that really made a difference. We had the tools at the time that actually allowed us, without doing track time, to hone in on a car design that was highly optimised. Everybody is doing it now, so there is always this race for development. At the time we definitely made a huge step.
“A small team of us built a computer machine that could represent the whole car and which would allow the different engineers to interact with the car. This allowed them to see how the car would react within the computer. We provided an infrastructure which allowed the engineers to work very efficiently – it was a very satisfying result.
“The biggest physical thing that you could see that came out of it was the simulator, the ‘big Playstation’. This was an octopod on legs that could move around to give g-force simulation to the driver including 3D simulation via goggles.”
Listening to Anthony explaining how their aim was for drivers to be able to use the simulator without becoming sick is truly interesting, while he also got to work with the top drivers in the industry.
“Working with Sebastian Vettel was such a supreme experience. He was such an intelligent and humble guy. I would work closely with him and the simulator to iron out any elements we could improve on.”
In 2013 Anthony left Red Bull Racing and moved to Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 as the head of simulation software. “It was simply building on what I did at Red Bull. On the opposite side and compared to Sebastian, Lewis didn’t give a hoot about the simulator. ‘It doesn’t work for me, I don’t trust it and I’m not going to use it’ was his approach. In a sense he was right, because we had to rework the simulator they had to improve its capabilities.
“F1 is a very secretive business. Eventually everybody knows your secrets, but the aim is to not leak your current secrets for at least six months. I then left Mercedes in 2019. I was part of two teams that in total achieved nine world championships in a row.”
This highly experienced engineer is currently working on a project that is focused on classic cars. It seems we will be seeing more of his work in the near future, but it will be very different!